Government official explains religion law
THE LAW IS ABOUT FREEDOM FOR ALL
Radonezh, January 1998
In issue no. 20 we published the first commentary on the "Law
on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations" (sic)
by the deputy director of the government apparatus of the Russian
federation, A.E. Sebentsov. The commentary aroused stormy discussion
in the press. We asked A.E. Sebentsov to sum up the discussion.
--Are you fully satisfied with your work? Which of the responses
most attracted your attention?
In the main I am satisfied with the commentary, although I recognize
its imperfection. Of course, it bears traces of haste. Besides
this, it is more speculative than based on experience, naturally,
because the law had just appeared and the purpose of the commentary
was to orient those who need to work within the bounds of the
law with how to understand it.
Naturally after the implementation of the law and the substatutory
acts that flow from it and the development of application in practice
it will need some improvement. But for the stage at which it was
composed, the commentary, in my view, turned out quite well, although
it is preliminary in character.
As regards the outcries, I would say that there were various outcries.
Some note several contradictions and mistakes. For example they
pointed out that in one place it contradicted the literal wording
of the text. But this was simply either my haste or an editorial
mistake, which is natural.
I think that in a sympathetic reading all such quibbles are cancelled
out and the reader understands what is being discussed. But there
are other responses which I would divide into three substantive
sets: responses of those who consider themselves harmed by this
law ("the text may seem harmless but out in the countryside
it may turn out entirely differently . . .") and responses
of those who consider that the law has not freed Russian society
from "pernicious spiritual influence" (and then they
call these or other religious organizations sects or some other
such words). But the law cannot free from these. Because the law
is about freedom of conscience. And it permits people to worship
in accordance with their conscience. This law requires the state
to create certain conditions to achieve this, and, on the other
hand, to restrict the activity of those religious organizations
or even associations which abuse their opportunities, infringe
upon the liberties and civil rights of Russians, including their
own adherents, and violate the constitution and laws by their
activity. The law gives religious organizations sufficiently great
rights that did not exist earlier.
What is completely new in this law is the exemption of property
with religious purpose from confiscation. Exemption from military
service is completely new. These are significant new rights which
have been given to citizens.
In this regard there is the third category of responses, which
really raise serious, profound problems. For example, border troops
have made an interesting response: they discuss how to reconcile
state service with the right to be a believing person and to satisfy
one's religious needs. Here there really are problems which, I
think, in the future will need to be considered.
--What kind of difficulties or problems can arise in the implementation
of this law, in your opinion?
--The basic difficulties that I see first are that various actions
not based on the law generally (not on this one but the law in
general) will pertain to the operation of this particular law.
Insofar as now the regulatory environment has been somewhat shaken
up (as we say) some motion toward the resolution of old conflicts
has begun. Several lawsuits which have been going on for two or
three years and a question which the court somehow had decided
long ago, but within the parameters of the old law, currently
pertain to the situation that now, supposedly, a new, bad law
has appeared which infringes upon believers' rights, although
this has nothing to do with reality. There are various reasons
for this. In particular, we have some activists, let's say dissidents,
who earn the means for their existence through their dissent.
To focus on one or another problem is for them the fundamental
task because otherwise no one would pay them any attention.
But as a result of their irresponsible activity a situation has
arisen where Russia has come under international criticism. This
can facilitate attempts to erect around Russia a quarantine zone,
make our life more difficult, and put pressure on Russia and on
the leadership. I should say that in part this law is not the
cause, but the occasion, which they specifically have been looking
for, in order to put forward their claims on Russia, because they
simply want to do so.
Other difficulties can be quite actual because, really, in the
countryside some local administrations will have greater freedom
to act. But this possibility always was there and it is there
Here it is extremely important how the leading confessions behave.
Because to a religious consciousness it is possible to accept
one's own and to reject the other's. Thus when our Orthodox exert
religious influence upon an administration, and the administration
sometimes cannot suspend certain religious preferences or the
influence of their own conscience (this is the greatest problem
we mentioned in the case of border troops), then the Orthodox
might dominate and, we admit, even suppress other religious organizations.
And if the administration operates on the basis of its own personal
preference, then occasions for conflicts may arise.
In other places other religions might operate similarly. Although
tolerance is generally a characteristic of Orthodox people, it
often has been tested in our days. And this test has not always
been passed honorably. Problems happen!
But there are also more serious objective complications. The point
is that the mechanisms for the achievement of the law's potential,
other than the action of simple prohibition during registration
and reregistration, are essentially absent. Nobody now knows how
to identify a problem which is created by the activity of one
or another religious or pseudoreligious association; no one knows
how to formulate clearly the essence of the question before a
judge, and judges do not have experience in the solution of these
problems. Here the objective difficulties will be quite natural
and we will not be able to achieve the civil society we desire
until we overcome them by means of applying our own experience.
--What would you prefer; should a mechanism for overseeing and
assuring the observance of the law by created?
--The law provides for overseeing and controlling certain aspects
of the activity of religious associations and organizations. It
is the responsibility of the ministry of justice and the procuracy.
But I don't know whether they will devote much attention to this.
These are sufficiently technical matters, and without special
subdivisions, in which trained specialists work who are able to
identify these problems it will be quite difficult. Thus the training
of cadres is a very important matter as is the preparation of
professionals for work in the area of relations between the state
and religious associations, because this is a complex, important,
and delicate subject. But we will try to help.
With regard to some state agency, it is difficult for me to say
something definite, because the idea still has not been received
positively. On the one hand it is sort of necessary, but the Russian
Orthodox church through the most holy patriarch has frequently
spoken against it. And it is the representatives of religious
minorities who nowadays are speaking in favor of an agency. I
have had occasion to hear the argument: "It would be better
to have a state agency because otherwise a privileged religious
organization will assume this role."
--As far as I know, the constituent elements of the federation
have adopted around thirty enactments regulating religious activity.
What will their fate be in light of the adoption of the federal
--They are required to operate in accordance with the federal
law, because the regulation of basic rights and freedoms in our
country is accomplished by federal laws and the constitution and
the securing of these rights and freedoms is a joint responsibility.
Thus the parts of the federation have the right to make rules
regulating religious activity. But they most be consistent with
the federal laws. And this leads us to another problem of a general
character (not only in the sphere of religion and religious associations):
currently the mechanisms for the enactment of regulatory acts
by parts of the federation in accordance with federal laws still
is not well worked out. Thus there are those who say: "This
law does not affect us; we have our own and it is better!"
But this is a problem, as I said already, of a general character.
--What will be the situation for the Russian Orthodox church with
regard to the law, as the largest religious structure of Russia?
--It will remain as it was. I do not see any serious movement
with regard to the situation of the Russian Orthodox church. It
is in no way infringed, but insofar as all religious associations
can get something in connection with this law, then the Russian
Orthodox church also can get something. It seems to me that the
Russian Orthodox church, as the largest religious structure of
Russia, could assume, let's say, the representation of the interests
of all religious associations. On the juridical level, as well
as the moral level, it could even defend them somehow. Because
no one else is able to assemble the necessary juridical forces
and united moral potential for better using and applying in practice
the provisions of this law. But for now it seems to me that the
Russian Orthodox church is not prepared for this.
--On 23 January Nezavisimaia gazeta published an article by Metropolitan
Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, "The law about freedom
of conscience: commentary on the commentary." What do you
think about what was said there? Do you agree with all the metropolitan
--To say that I agree with the opinions of the metropolitan would,
of course, be incorrect. The point is that the metropolitan, in
my view, in the strictest sense of the word, understands the church's
interests, and he defends, so to speak, its short-term interests,
which to a certain degree harms long-term interests. This pertains
both to the Russian Orthodox church and perhaps to Russia as a
whole. In developing his thoughts regarding the strict conditions
for reregistration of religious associations, he violates the
spirit of the law on freedom. Because the law on freedom is the
freedom of everyone and not only the Orthodox or Muslims or those
who are named in the preamble. Freedom for all. In general a person
has the right to worship, as we already said at the start, whatever
god and in whatever form as his conscience dictates. But the other
side is more complex: if this infringes upon the civil rights
of these or other persons, then this requires attention. In this
case there are real, but not formal, bases to refuse registration
to prevent the activity of an association. That is possible. But
for this there must be real bases, and it is necessary to give
attention that is not purely formalistic.
At present the law, as I wrote in the commentary, is generally
not quite formulated. It speaks only about fifteen years for local
religious associations who wish to be made religious organizations
and acquire legal status. It is about them only. But it makes
no reference to centralized organizations.
--What about foreign evaluations and actions with regard to the
adoption of this law?
--I already have expressed a bit on this topic. Evaluations, unfortunately,
have been dictated by intention, because from the start there
has been the intention, but then the evaluations arose. So it
is necessary to note that many have not even read the law, but
they have expressed a negative attitude toward it. This was even
before the law was published. If one wants to speak ill of Russia
then it is not important what provides the occasion; they will
say it nevertheless. Thus I would not begin to take very seriously
the foreign evaluations in their literal form. They have their
own life, their own history, and they all somehow think that we
should outdo them and that we have already solved those problems
which they themselves do not know how to solve. But this is not
the case and we have to learn our own devices and our own capacities,
perhaps sometimes even our mistakes.
Of course it is impossible to say that the law is absolutely perfect.
But nevertheless this is our law, which our democratic parliament
adopted by democratic means. Perhaps not entirely by their measures.
Incidentally, much of what happened in our country also was dictated
by our measures. For example, Clinton's provocation which they
now have set up is not quite moral, I would say. Thus I want to
note that the evaluations of western politicians is not entirely
Now, as regards actions. Again, if you want to act then you begin
to search for a justification for it. And actions toward us may
not be very friendly. At present questions have been raised about
restricting aid to Russia, and perhaps we shall see something
more. For our part we have explained our position and I hope that
it has not been entirely unsuccessful. (tr by PDS)